Add rye and grenadine to a Collins glass over ice
Top with cola, then squeeze in lime
Stir and garnish with cherries
* * *
If you’re willing to tolerate our “12 Rounds” lunacy, one of the questions we’ll ask you is “What was your first formative cocktail experience?” For me, the answer has to be the Roy Rogers. Now, I know what you’re thinking – coke and grenadine, that’s no cocktail – but you’d be wrong. Very wrong. Through the eyes of a child, anything that comes from the bar and includes mysterious ingredients (grenadine) and a garnish is, without question, a bona fide mixed drink worthy of Harry Craddock himself. No, in the Kodachrome world of my youth, when I sidled up to the bar and placed my two bits on the counter, my order was “A Roy Rogers, Mister – and make it snappy.”
As today marks the anniversary of the passing of Roy Rogers, the King of Cowboys, I thought it only fitting to pay a little tribute to the man – and to the entire lost breed of singing cowboys, for that matter – with a drink that rekindles some childhood taste memories while leading the whole endeavor along happy, and decidedly adult, trails. On the surface, the Rye Rogers is little more than a play on the moniker of that kiddie stalwart – one which still lives on for the younger generations who haven’t been raised on either Messrs Rogers (Fred or Roy) and who have little relationship with the magnanimous knights of the Old West. The drink conjures bygone flavors, but it also provides something a little more layered and interesting than your standard Jack and Coke or Cuba Libre. Certainly, Rye, that old gunslinger favorite, changes things up, but it’s the lime that I think really brings the drink together, providing the necessary foil for both the cola and the grenadine.
But, let’s talk about Roy – or, Leonard Slye, as he was christened when he came into this world. Born in Cincinnati in 1911, Leonard soon found himself living the country life, after his father decided to make a go of it as a farmer. Unfortunately, Andy Slye was a miserable farmer, and he was left with little choice but to return to Cincinnati for work while the family remained at home in the country. While Leonard – we’ll call him Roy to make things easier on all of us – certainly took to farm life, he was no better at it than his father. Of course, it didn’t help the family prospects that Roy’s mother Mattie, who suffered lameness from a childhood bout with polio, was busy raising three girls alongside the boy. They did, however, have a knack for entertaining themselves and the neighbors. On Saturday nights, the locals would gather for a bit of square dancing, with young Roy singing, playing the mandolin and, sometime later, calling the dances.
There came a point, of course, when the boy became a young man and sensed an obligation to help provide for the family. As farming wasn’t cutting it, Roy joined his father at the United States Shoe Company in Cincinnati – a job they both hated. A decision was made to pack everything up and go visit Roy’s older sister, Mary, in California. Once Roy had sampled the Golden State, there was no going back.
It was sister Mary that first suggested to Roy that he try out for a local amateur radio program. By then, Roy had developed his signature yodeling style, adopted from a music cylinder of yodeling that his father had brought home. So taken were Roy and his mother by the yodeling that they began to communicate in the melodic Swiss trills. Just a few days after his radio debut, Roy was asked to join a music group called The Rocky Mountaineers. It was as part of the Rocky Mountaineers that Roy first met Bob Nolan, and the two were in and out of various groups until everything seemed to click with an outfit called The Pioneer Trio, comprised of Rogers, Nolan, and Tim Spencer.
The Pioneer Trio got their big break with an audition at Los Angeles’ KFWB radio. They had a great sound, and Nolan had written a song, “Way Out There”, to feature their distinctive trio yodel (Nolan would go on to write “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Cool Water”). The minute station manager Jerry King heard them yodel, they had a contract for $35 a week – “I mean every week,” Rogers would happily recall. Of course, the reviews and the fan letters for the Pioneer Trio were enormously positive, but it was the new radio transcription service that would seal their status as bona fide national stars.
Up until the early 1930s, radio broadcasts were mostly local affairs, but transcription services – recordings pressed on records and licensed to stations around the country – changed all that. When KFWB’s Jerry King founded his Standard Radio service in 1934, the first group he recorded was the Pioneer Trio, or as they were then known, The Sons of the Pioneers. The name change came about out of practicality and common sense. First, the singers were certainly too old to be pioneers themselves, and second, the group had expanded to become more than just a trio.
Of course, national recognition led to bit parts in other people’s Western. Singing cowboy Gene Autry had become all the rage in Hollywood, but when rumor spread that Autry was at odds with Republic Pictures over his contract, every singer in a Stetson found his way onto the studio lot, including Roy, who had to sneak on with a group of extras. Given his shot, Roy soared, and in October of 1937, he signed a seven-year contract with Republic. When Autry failed to report to the set of “Under the Western Stars”, Leonard Slye (as he was still known) was renamed “Roy Rogers” and given the starring role.
It was on “Under the Western Stars” that Rogers would first meet his most faithful movie companion – Trigger. After reviewing the horses in the Republic stables to select his signature mount, Roy was smitten with a golden palomino that “could turn on a dime and give you some change.” Legend is that Rogers – never resorting to whipping the horse or using his spurs – could get Trigger to do anything with a gentle pat on his neck and, over the course of a career that encompassed 80 films, 101 television episodes, and too many personal appearances to count, Trigger never fell. They were a pair made for each other.
As his star power grew, Roy took on new management and set out to renegotiate his deal with Republic. While they didn’t get the monetary increases they had been seeking, they came away with something even more valuable: ownership of the Roy Rogers name, his voice, and his likeness. Over the next few decades, Roy Rogers would become one of the most valuable names in merchandising, second only to the Walt Disney library. Hats, shirts, lunchboxes, furniture, clocks, watches, even restaurants – you name it, and Roy put his name on it.
Throughout the majority of his career, Roy had been partnered with Trigger and sidekick Gabby Hayes. He had even managed to bring the other Sons of the Pioneers into the mix. But, it wasn’t until Republic cast Dale Evans in “The Cowboy and the Senorita” (1944) that the Rogers ensemble was truly complete. While Evans made a perfect on-screen companion for Rogers, it wasn’t until a few years after the untimely and tragic death of Roy’s first wife, Arline, following childbirth, that Roy considered a new mother for his two young daughters and infant son. On New Year’s Eve 1947, Rogers and Evans married and remained so until Roger’s death in 1998.
The 1950s were the age of television, and just as Roy had made the successful transition from radio to film, he ventured onto the small screen in 1951. While “The Roy Rogers Show” may be forgotten these days, its closing theme song, “Happy Trails” still endears.
Outside of his enormous career, it must be said that Rogers was a man who commanded great respect from those who knew him. Not only did he epitomize cowboy perfection – always perfectly groomed, defiantly masculine, a twinkle in his eye – he was a deeply religious man who set the example for practicing what he preached. Books on Rogers speak about how there was never a scandal, how he lovingly raised both his own children and the many that he had adopted from all walks and ethnicities. Fate, however, was not kind to the Rogers children. Debbie, adopted from Korea, was killed in a bus accident just days after her twelfth birthday. A year later, older son John David (“Sandy”), whom Rogers and Evans has adopted as a malnourished, abused boy, died in his sleep while in a military hospital. Most tragic of all was the short life of Rogers’ and Evans’ first child together, Robin, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome and who survived just two years. Despite an avalanche of advice to put Robin in an institution, Roy and Dale believed that her place was at home with the family.
Rogers himself passed away at the age of 86. After a long illness, he asked to be transferred home so that he could be surrounded by his family and friends. In his later years, Rogers had committed himself to the founding of the Roy Rogers-Dale Evans Museum in Apple Valley, California. Evans passed a few years later in 2001. Unfortunately, it seems that without the cowboys and cowgirls around to keep the flames burning, memories quickly become ephemeral things. In 2009, after forty-two years, the museum shut its doors.
You may note that I’ve called for imitation maraschino cherries – the horribly fake, nuclear red orbs – in this drink. While only the real thing will do elsewhere, here I think we all need a link back to our childhood. Even if you weren’t a particular fan of Rogers, it was heroes like him (and feisty heroines like Dale Evans) that set our early moral compasses. When we slept at night, we could rest easy knowing that the good guys would always get the bad guys, and that honor, in and of itself, stood for something. And though our tastes may have changed as we’ve grown older, I believe that it’s still important for us to connect to those childhood moments, when our earliest memories of mixed drinks and heroes were formed.
Before we go, here’s Sons of the Pioneers with the song that kick-started it all:
Esoterica: If you’re in the Ohio area, Roy Rogers Restaurants are still going strong. Find your nearest location – but bring your own booze. They don’t serve Rye Rogers.